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Monthly Archives: October 2018

I’m half way through my time in NYC. The time has sped by at a startling pace, inducing acute panic and anxiety. What have I achieved? What have I to show for these weeks?! It’s clear that I’m struggling to ‘lean in’ to having time to think, idle and reflect. I have this nagging voice in my head demanding productivity; a number of words written, a set of projects developed, a range of outcomes produced with the idea of deep personal and intellectual transformation (!!!).

I’m know that I should resist, I should give my mind space and time to drift in a new landscape; allowing my thoughts to catch the wind, find serendipitous connections, follow things that capture my imagination. But it’s hard. Maybe I need to meditate or maybe I need to medicate.

One thing I’m currently caught on is the split between reflection and production, moving forwards or looking back. I came to New York with a mission to develop a project (a book) about design education. This has been in the pipeline for years and I’ve not had the time to fully engage. The book will allow me to ‘capitalise’ on the effort, work, time and energy I’ve put into teaching over the last 17 years. I have a hope that it will act as a way to move my thinking on, whilst creating a vehicle to communicate the amazing work that my colleagues and I have achieved at Goldsmiths. It’s my opportunity to shout loudly about what we’ve done, creating a record that I think is important at this point in the history of design education. However, as with most of these moments in my life; capitalising on something that I’m in  prime position to do so, is something I rarely do.

I end up feeling bored by the ideas I’ve already thought, annoyed at the banality of my brain, and with this come the loss of curiosity and excitement. I want to move to new pastures, think new things and imagine a different set of possibilities. This is made worse  because I’m away from teaching and away from Goldsmiths; so the book feels like I’m making a prison for myself. A way to remain in the past.

As I write, Herbie is on a plane, over the Atlantic. A brave boy, flying on his own, heading to me and the promised land of endless pizza and ice-cream. I think his presence will help… or at least distract me from my privileged purgatory (only joking here… being overly dramatic… I’m still loving NYC).

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Pesce

So my diary isn’t going too well… there’s a temporal disjunction between the amount of sensory and cultural input I’m receiving and my ability to write it down. This maybe due to my poor writing skills, my lack of routine and discipline or it could be that I’m being over-stimulated and my fingers are too slow.

I do however, need to record my encounter with Gaetano Pesce. I went to a lecture he gave at Columbia on Monday and it was an incredible experience. It was perfectly timed for me; I was desparate for a type of input that would uplift me and make me have hope in design and design education.

I’ve been a long time fan of Pesce. I first came across his work during a period in my design education when I tried to deconstruct my aesthetic values. I looked for work that I didn’t ‘like the look of’, that challenged the norms of my aesthetic sensibilities and I found Pesce and Sottsass. Both of which, I had instant aesthetic responses against, both I have grown to love. I’ve been lucky enough to hear them speak, had they’ve had a massive impact on my understanding of the world and the world of design.

Pesce’s lecture at Columbia Architecture was full of humor and insight. He spoke passionately about what he felt was worth while in architecture. He made the distinion between ‘architecture’ and ‘building’… he said that most of the constructed environment today – the buildings that the architecture press sell as Architecture (with a big A) are merely buildings. Because true architecture both reflects the context in which it sits, but also moves it forward – it speaks of a future. He beleives many of today’s star-hitect buildings are BORING!

He has a joyful playfulness combined with grand scale hopefullness that I feel is missing from much of todays design culture. He really gives NO FUCKS. I went along, aware that I could be disappointed with an old, white, italian man who was likely to be sexist and old fashioned. I came away wanting him to adopted me. He talked about gender politics, a tricky thing for an old man to do in the age of #metoo, but he sent a clear message: the male ego has fucked things up, we need to give all positions of responsibility to women.

In an age of post-disciplinary, post-industurial design practice that engages with the knotty problems of the 21st Century, it’s hard for us to remain connected to a material practice, a sense of simplicity, or humour in the face of desparation. There’s very little to smile about in the world. As we look through our tiny media windows we see things that feel too big to ‘solve’, too advanced to restore. But Pesce remained hopeful, he remained humble and he remained deeply individual in his aesthetic evolution.

One of the things I worry most about is how, as designers, we manage to evolve a sense of humour (what, in conversations with Fiona Raby & Tony Dunne call), a ‘lightness of touch’, in response to the complexities of our world. At the moment I see a bifurcation; where funny, joyful and light work sit in the realm of meaningless, excessive consumption. Whilst social engaged, community focused and politically meaningful design work is often humourless, austere and self satisfied. We need to stop being so binary. We need to be multiple.

In the questions after, I was a little too overwhelmed and intimidated to ask a question, but after the lecture, talking to a colleague we thought of loads. The two most important are; how does Pesce make decisions about his ideas? And, does he think it’s possible to teach the sense of self confidence needed to produce work that bucks the trend – that reaches outside of the aesthetic norm?

A student asked about his working process; he answered by saying it’s simple – he has an idea, then makes it. Although I laughed, I’m not convinced this is true, he must have a way to work though an idea, to understand if it’s worth pursuing. He must have a way to make decisions within his process. I’d like to try and understand this process a little more.

As for the pedagogy of confidence, I’m a bit stuck. My hope is; if you are an educator and you support the learning of students to understand (self actualise), to be revolutionary in their understand of the world, to transgress the social, political and aesthetic norms, to help support them in understanding their agency… then this confidence will come. But I’m not too sure… I hope it does.

The Friday before last (21st Oct 2018) I went to a GIDEST seminar with Siri Hustvedt. I discovered Hustvedt’s work through her husband, Paul Auster, 24 years ago.  On seeing and listening to Hustvedt, the significance of Auster’s work on my life suddenly hit me. Zac Baker, a dear old friend of mine, gave me Mr. Vertigo at a very dark point in my life. In my first year at University, my best friend died. I couldn’t sleep and I was spiralling into a black hole. The book saved me. It changed my relationship to reading and opened a new world to me. A world, where words… stories… books… fiction could be a place to escape to. A world where I could process my feelings and thoughts. All these years later, I’m sat at a table across from Siri, with a feeling of excitement and intellectual giddiness.

Siri Hustvedt is an amazing woman; a creative thinker who possesses razor sharp intelligence, her ideas are expressed with a poetic clarity, which is unusual for someone who draws on such a diverse set of references. She manages to move smoothly across disciplinary boundaries, without care for their formal and superficial barriers. She has the feeling of a person from a different era; driven by curiosity and a desire to understand the world around her, somehow avoiding the politics and trappings of the modern ‘public intellectual’.

We were given three pieces of her work to read before the seminar; an excerpt from The Blazing World, and the chapters; Becoming Others and My Louise Bourgeois from A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. All three pieces were fascinating; I particularly liked Becoming Others where Hustvedt examines her mirror touch synesthesia.

The most fascinating aspect of mirror-touch synesthesia maybe precisely that it lies at, indeed appears to cross, the border between self and other, but does so in a way that forces us to examine the limen itself and what it means for empathic and imaginative experience.

Hustvedt goes on to make links between phenomenology, psychology and neurobiology  through Merleau-Ponty’s intercorporeality, Winnicott’s transitional objects and Gallese’s we-space.  It was the ‘we-space’ (Gallese, 2001), the space of relational agency, that fascinated me. In my talk at Critical by Design earlier this year, I spoke about my Fathers dementia and how fiction became an intersubjective tool of translation and mediation for his madness. I spoke about how stories became a way for us to engage, care and comfort him during his distress. Reading Hustvedt, it made me think of the semi-fictional reality that we co-created with my dad as a ‘space of the imagination’. A space to make empathy possible.

Much has been written about design and empathy (the original phrase was developed by Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Jeffrey Rayport, Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, in 1997) and how, as designers, we need to develop empathetic techniques to understand our users. User Centred Design has become a common approach and method for designers to consider people in a systematic manner throughout a design process. However, I’ve always found the use of personas problematic in their representational limitations. Often, the fictional characterisations are thin and generic characterisations of human complexities and identities. My question to Hustvedt centred around how the intersubjective space, the we-space of imaginative potential, could be tapped, enriched and furnished with complexity. Ultimately, creating fictions – our projections of ourselves into the we-space – to enable alternative spaces of potential without the horrors of cultural assimilation and colonisation. This starts to sound a lot like Anne Galloway‘s Fantastic Ethnography, in particular her reflections on the brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin‘s challenge for us to go beyond-realism.

Ultimately, my question fell a little flat. Not due to Hustvedt’s lack of engagement in the idea or her generous attempt to understand what the hell I was saying, but more due to her understanding of the word / discipline DESIGN. The disciplinary elephant in the room… I’m sure many of you have been there; the conversation is going well, non-designers are speaking to you as smart, intelligent humans, then you drop the D-bomb and it all goes wrong. Suddenly the world collapses as the person you’re speaking to suddenly can’t think of anything but throw-cushions, fancy bathroom taps, ‘designer’ handbags, ‘problem solving’ and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen (thanks Jimmy!).

The GIDEST seminars are set up to create a space of interdisciplinary discourse, but as those who have tried this know it’s a difficult space to engage in (especially for design); language barriers, disciplinary biases and divergent interests slow the discussions down and often lead to unproductive conversations. For design, it’s a deeper problem, we have a pretty terrible rep. So much of the work we (designers / educators) need to do, is to translate and reposition how design is seen – in both the ‘academy’ and general public.

Reference:

Gallese,V. ‘The ‘shared manifold’ hypothesis. From mirror neurons to empathy’.  Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 8, Numbers 5-7, 1 May 2001, pp. 33-50(18)